Theory & Science (2001)

ISSN: 1527-5558

Where Scholars Fear To Tread:
The Inertia Of Academic Epublication 1

Timothy McGettigan
University of Southern Colorado


Despite its obvious advantages, academics have approached epublication with trepidation. I argue that no matter what choices individuals may make, information technology is already revolutionizing academic publication. Thus, those who take advantage now will be well situated when the rest of academia inevitably makes the inertial shift to epublication.

Waiting in the Wings

Do revolutionary technologies precipitate sweeping social change? Yes, but not instantly. Telephones, automobiles, airplanes, computers, etc., have all endured a hiatus between invention and widespread usage. Indeed, there are a variety of logistical reasons for such lag time, e.g., the first airplane was not devised with commercial passengers in mind, and much the same can be said for other major new technologies: prototype computers, cars, and telephones were not ergonomically designed for mass consumers.

Nevertheless, technological developments have been a primary source of advantageous social change for much of human history (Lenski, et. al., 1995). New technologies have often transcended human limitations and, in so doing, utterly transformed the realm of possibility: the Wright Brothers’ winged bicycle helped shrink the globe into a sometimes volatile, but, nonetheless tightly interrelated village. Therefore, it is exceedingly curious that, in a state of burgeoning crisis, academics would eschew the very technologies that have been designed—that have, in fact, been implemented—to resolve an escalating dilemma. Such is the case with the crisis in academic publishing (Bostock, 2001; Ginsparg, 1996; Gradinarov, 2000; Harnad, 1994; Odlyzko, 1999a; Okerson, 1991; Readings, 1994; Schulenberger, 1998; Sosteric, 1996a, 1996b, 1999a, 1999b; Willensky, 2000). The current frameworks of print publishing have produced a situation wherein it is exceedingly difficult for academics to publish even high quality scholarship (Odlyzko, 1995). 2 In addition, the escalating cost of print journals—due, some have argued to monopoly control over the print journal industry, and the correspondingly “inflexible market” for scholarly journals (Odlyzko, 1997; Sosteric, 1996b, 1999b)—have created a situation wherein research libraries are being forced to cut back on rather than keep up with journal subscriptions.

Given the implications of this crisis, one might expect that academics would prioritize the formulation and execution of workable solutions: reducing costs, while expanding the number of available publication outlets. Well, the good news is that such solutions do exist (Association of Research Libraries, 2000b; Buck, et. al., 1999; Harnad, 1991; Odlyzko, 1999b; Pope and Miller, 1998; Sosteric, 1999a, 1999b; Vrasides, 2000). New epublishing technologies have been developed that vastly reduce the cost of academic publication development, production, distribution, and subscription. However, the bad news is that very few academics are willing to embrace these solutions. Why?

Apparently, it will take more than technology to resolve the current dilemma; the scholarly publication crisis involves a number of knotty “sociological” complications (Heimpel, 1999; Odlyzko, 1995; Sosteric, 1996a). Being guardians of knowledge, academics harbor especial concerns about the potential for new technologies to trammel or taint scholarship. Thus, important apprehensions have been raised about the longevity and validity of electronic texts. In response, advocates of epublication have demonstrated that not only can the permanence of etexts be ensured, but that new standards for document convertability have made etexts far more durable than print publications (Sosteric, 1999a, 1999b, 1999d, 1999e).

In addition, the transition from print to epublication has also aroused basic concerns about the evolving definition of “publication” (Heimpel, 1999; Readings, 1994) and the relative veracity of electronically published knowledge (Association of Research Libraries, 2000a; Bulmer and Stanley, 1996; Case, 2000; Shoaf, 1994; Sosteric, 1999c; Willensky, 2000). It is worth noting, however, that these concerns are not entirely unique to the sphere of epublication: Alan Sokal (1996a, 1996b) has demonstrated that even pure gibberish can be authorized for publication in the most prestigious print journals. Furthermore, far from bringing about its demise, epublication has enhanced and updated the peer review process (Harnad, 1997, 1998/2000; Willensky, 2000). That is, epublication has permitted the development of post-peer-review procedures that can generate data to evaluate not only readership and citations, but even the amount of time that readers devote to perusing oft-cited articles (Sosteric, 1996c, 1999c). Thus, there are no essential contradictions between “legitimate” scholarship, and epublication.

So if the scholarly publication crisis has been resolved in theory, why have so few academics embraced the solution in practice? Further, why would scholars reject an opportunity not only to publish their work, but also to reach a much wider readership than most print journals can offer? 3

As I have proposed elsewhere, ground-breaking ideas are not always popular in their own time (McGettigan, 1998, 1999a, 1999b). The world of print publication has dominated academia ever since Gutenberg cranked out the first mass-consumption texts in c1450 (Harnad, 1991). Consequently, the hierarchy of academic power has been reified through the vehicle of print publication long enough to create substantial institutional impediments to change (Heimpel, 1999). Scholars have thus shunned epublication not only because the academic hierarchy tends to ignore the work published in this upstart medium—and, thus, such work fails to “count” toward academic rewards such as tenure—but also because aggressive efforts have even been undertaken to undermine the legitimacy of epublications, and, thus, the scholars associated with them (Odlyzko, 1995; Sosteric, 1996). Therefore, despite the demonstrable advantages of epublication, scholars’ existing investments in print publishing impede the implementation of a ready solution to the academic publishing crisis (Heimpel, 1999).

Nevertheless, despite the ill-fated resolve of the print publication establishment, there is a great deal of inertia building toward academic epublication. The print publication industry has already made experimental forays into the sphere of epublication—largely with the goal of maintaining market-share and increasing profits while transitioning an antiquated publication philosophy into a new environment. This strategy has thus far delayed the enclosure of the Internet, and thereby bought time for the development of ingenious, low-cost alternatives to the print model of academic publication (Gradinarov, 2000; Leavy and Ganesh, 2000; Odlyzko 1997, 1999a, 1999b; Payne, 2001; Sosteric, 1999a, 1999b; Willensky, 2000).

Thus, like it or not, the academic publishing crisis has initiated the pressure and incentive to pursue fundamental changes in scholarly publishing. Because of the vast new potential for profit and innovation on the Internet, the transition to epublishing is no longer a question of if, it’s only a matter of when. Resistance to epublishing among academics—especially those well-situated within the print publishing hierarchy—is likely to remain rigid (Heimpel, 1999). As Kuhn (1970) argued long ago, those who are invested in an existing structure of power are unlikely to embrace newer, or better approaches to their chosen pursuits.

Consequently, I see no point in trying to convert stalwart opponents of epublication. For the moment, the edifice of print publication stands tall and (apparently) firm—however, its foundation is eroding. Instead, the purpose of this paper is to deliver a message to those currently weighing the relative merits of print vs. epublication. Here’s the message: The future of academic publication has arrived, and its format is electronic.

Thus, those who get involved now stand to make the greatest gains when the inevitable academia-wide shift to epublication comes about. For the moment, opportunities abound—but only for those who dare walk where others fear to tread.


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1. This paper was originally published in The Craft, Volume 4,

2. This is due principally to an expansion in the number of active scholars, and increases in the degree of specialization within every discipline.

3. For example, the Electronic Journal of Sociology, (, currently garners hundreds of thousands of hits/readers per issue. Whereas even more specialized ejournals, such as Radical Pedagogy (, or Theory & Science ( garner in the tens of thousands of hits/readers per issue.